Parashat Korah

Numbers 16:1–18:32

June 12, 2010 / 30 Sivan 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Hoffman, scholar-in-residence, Development Department, JTS.

Korah's Rebellion in Blue and White

From what time do they recite the morning Sh'ma [prayer]? From when [there is sufficient light] in order to distinguish between blue and white.

Mishnah Berakhot 1:2

What was the nature of Korah's great rebellion?

Seemingly, his claim is not all that audacious: "Moshe: 'All the community is holy (kulam kedoshim) and God is in their midst!'" (Num. 16:3). Indeed, Korah's message seems to be reminiscent of the sentiment that God had, in fact, expressed to Moshe right before the revelation at Sinai: "You [the entire people] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6).

Many commentators suggest that the key to unlocking the meaning of the challenge that Korah presents is revealed when we read this passage with its immediate antecedent in the Torah:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments to be holy (ve-heyitem kedoshim) to your God. (Num. 15:37–41)

This paragraph is very familiar to us. It constitutes the last paragraph of the Sh'ma. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an important twentieth-century Israeli theologian, argues that Korah's profound misstep can only be appreciated when his claim—"All the community is holy (kulam kedoshim)" (Num. 16:3)—is seen in juxtaposition to the theology of this passage.

Holiness as it is articulated in the last paragraph of the Sh'ma is not a given. Rather, holiness is an aspiration. It is the objective of a life lived in relationship to God and God's will. God has made it clear that the Israelites are not inherently holy. A path is set before them. Mitzvot, ways of being in the world, are commanded. If people choose to follow this path and construct lives, relationships, and communities of meaning, then, and only then, will they bring holiness into their lives and communities.

In contrast, Korah offers another type of religious consciousness, and it should be understood as a competing posture toward the world. Holiness for Korah is not an aspiration but an intrinsic quality: "The community is holy." Leibowitz understands this to be Korah's heresy. Never in the Torah are the Jewish people equated with holiness. Leviticus 19 famously presents the Israelites with the possibility of holiness, "kedoshim teheyu" (You shall be holy); the possibility, never the fact. When Korah argues that the nation is holy, he undermines the religious vision of the Torah and expresses a type of hubris of self-sufficiency that must be seen as idolatry in its purest form. God's path for human growth and betterment—mitzvot as a language that aspires to make the world holy—is replaced by complacency. If holiness is an aspiration, then human beings are responsible for the world. But if holiness is an ontological given, what is there left to build? What is there to strive toward? In his challenge to Moshe's leadership, Korah has undermined human responsibility for the world.

I would offer an additional interpretation of Korah's challenge, one which also builds on the juxtaposition of these two sections of the Torah. Rashi relates the following midrash in order to explain the nature of Korah's attack:

What did Korah do?

He arose and assembled 250 men who were fit to be the heads of the Sanhedrin . . . and he dressed them in four-cornered garments (tallit) made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and said to him: "Does a four-cornered garment made entirely of blue wool require fringes (tzitzit) or is it exempt?"

Moses said to them: "It does require tzitzit."

They began to laugh at him: "Is it possible that a tallit made of some other material and then one string of blue makes the tallit ritually fit and, yet, this tallit which is made entirely of blue is not already ritually fit?!"

This midrash also assigns relevance to the fact that Korah's rebellion occurs immediately after the passage about tzitzit. Korah and his group attack Moshe's authority by means of an argument regarding what constitutes a "kosher" tallit. They laugh incredulously at him and reject his response based on an argument a fortiori (qal v'homer): If the fringes of a four-cornered white garment are made kosher by attaching a single blue cord to the tzitzit, then a tallit made entirely of blue cord must certainly be exempt from the blue cord!

Moshe is not moved by this reasoning and opines that even a tallit made of blue wool must have a blue cord on its fringes, just as Numbers 15:38 mandates.

But what really is at stake in this dispute? Is this simply an argument over what makes "kosher" tallitot?

I suggest that we may understand Rashi to be doing something more than simply identifying the disagreement that Korah used in order to challenge Moshe's authority. Behind the argument lies a disagreement as to the need for boundaries and distinctions. Korah claims that if a tallit is made of all blue wool, no cord of blue is needed on the white fringes. Moshe, however, affirms that tzitzit must be made of white fringes and a blue wool cord. The contrast between the white and blue must be manifest in the fringes themselves. This is an essential part of the mitzvah of tzitzit. In this way, when a Jew holds the tzitzit and looks at the contrast between the colors, he or she fulfills the command to "recall all the commandments of the Lord" (Num. 15:39). Indeed, Mishnah Berakhot 1:2 identifies the earliest time in the morning to read the Sh'ma prayer as the moment when one can identify the difference between the blue cord and the white fringes. This halakhah is about the importance of distinctions and boundary-making in the religious life.

Korah proposes a worldview that does away with contrasts and boundaries. This idea is also present in his challenge to Moshe: "The whole community is holy." No longer are distinctions between proper conduct and unbecoming choices a part of the tapestry of the religious life. Differentiation is only a part of the religious worldview offered by Moshe. Indeed, later in Rashi's commentary, Rashi has Moshe attack Korah: "Boundaries has the Holy One blessed be He set in His world! Are you able to change 'morning' into 'evening'?!"

The religious life is about striving to create communities infused with holiness. By no means is this a given. Korah's challenge was not only ill constructed, it was fatal for the religious program of the Torah. The mitzvah of tzitzit—with its essential contrast between blue and white—reminds us that a formative moment in our relationship with God is the ability to make distinctions. It is in the moment of making choices that we assume responsibility for the world, and it is through boundary-making that we constructively respond to the aspirational call: kedoshim teheyu—"You shall be Holy because I your God am holy."

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.